Friday, July 1, 2011

CONSUMPTION: A NOVEL by G. S. Johnston (with an interview)


A long-term friendship deteriorates as one party becomes obsessed with money, possessions, and the Hong Kong high life.


This novel is set in Hong Kong and Sydney and explores the diverging lifestyles of two old friends. Martin is a successful interior designer who becomes increasingly intoxicated by the money-driven atmosphere of Hong Kong. His friend Sara lives a simpler life in Australia, but remains tied to her childhood friend even as he becomes more and more manipulative. Martin's increasingly erratic and needy behavior puts a strain on Sara's more healthy relationships, but it is difficult for her to cut ties with him. The relationship between the two highlights the complicated nature of friendships that last over a long period of time as well as a long distance.

Johnston captures the type of expatriate lifestyle that sometimes seems like an alternate reality. Martin has a live-in helper (a common occurrence here) and easy access to designer shoes, designer cars and designer drugs. He seems to have no contact at all with locals and he is riding a wave of success that appears to be endless. He is primarily concerned with the business of spending money, rather than making it, and this takes a toll on his ability to trust others and function in a normal friendship. He weaves a web of truth and lies that keeps the momentum going throughout the book. He is a fascinating character who demands that you pay attention to him. 

The descriptions of Hong Kong and Sydney were evocative and insightful, and the characters were well-developed and intriguing. The dialogue was sometimes unrealistic and awkward, which made it harder to focus on the dynamics of the relationships in the book. This is a self-published e-book, but it is mostly free from typos and grammatical errors. I did notice little mistakes such as the use of "all right" when "alright" is appropriate and misplaced quotation marks, but the manuscript is in much better shape than many e-books I have seen. This is a good read if you are interested in the effects of materialism and in watching the trajectory of an uncommon friendship.


Greg Johnston's website


I paid $2.99 for the e-book, but last time I checked it was on sale for $0.99


Have you experienced a rift in a friendship due to a drastic change in the level of consumption by one party? Why do you think material things can affect relationships?


Greg Johnston has kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his new novel. He has a friendly, funny voice and I hope you enjoy what he has to say about his work.


Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about your new novel at A Kindle in Hong Kong.

1) What is the gist of your story in one sentence? 

One sentence?  I'm a writer.  I've said five thousand words before I get out of bed in the morning. 

What happens when a good friendship goes bad. 


The film Beaches on cocaine. 

2) Why did you choose to write about the theme of consumption in this novel? 

The rise and rise of consumer culture is disturbing.  We are only the artifacts we possess.  I wanted to write about what happen when this idea blows out and someone takes that kind of construction of personality and persona to the nth degree.  But I wanted to make this exploration fun and funny, rather than a dire thesis.  Martin is funny, although he does lurch towards the melodramatic. 

3) You explore the nature of long-term friendships in this story. Why do Sara and Martin remain close for so long, despite their diverging paths? 

It's pretty easy to stop a casual friendship.  You don't return calls or e-mails, don't make appointments, just generally remain evasive until the other person stops.  But with a sibling, it needs a huge argument to destroy the relationship. 

Martin and Sara are kind of half-way between these two types of relationships.  They're not siblings but they were linked by the death of their parents at a young age and the understanding of how each other felt.  This created a bond which was beyond the casual contrivances of life. 

But arguably during the course of the novel, they aren't that close.  When Sara first arrives in Hong Kong, she knows he's changed well beyond having opened a business and having his teeth capped.  But she hopes they'll still have respect for one another's differences and can remain close.  When this begins to unravel, she clings to the past, as does he.  She doesn't really have a family, in a familiar sense, someone who's been through all the hard times.  Martin is the one who knows the history, even though Peggy offers her much more consistent love and support.  Until she really sees that he's damaging her, she can't let that go.  And she still does see glimpses of the old Martin, like buying the pug dog.  Whilst its a very pretentious buying trip, Martin's half taking the piss out of it, literally rubbing people's noses in it. 

4) Can you tell me about your experiences in Hong Kong? Have you lived here before?

I've never lived in Hong Kong.  I've been there a few times on the way to Europe.  The first time was in 1989, a few days after Tiananmen Square and I remember all the protests and horror, a sea of people passing the Hilton Hotel Coffee Shop.  I don't think that's there anymore. 

Each time I went back to Hong Kong approaching 1997, I noticed things had changed a little.  Simple things like the amount of billboards in English and the level of violence had increased. 

But the streets of Hong Kong always make me laugh.  There's a story Martin tells of seeing old Chinese men on the street seemingly arguing and then erupting into great mirth.  It's a great place to be a watcher, someone on the fringe.  As I don't speak Cantonese, a traveler remains somewhat excluded.  Even when you're buying a two thousand buck tailored suit, you can haggle and have fun while spending far too much money.  I used to love the whole "back room" to buy the fake watches and stuff.  I bought a bodacious Bvlgari watch (fake) and an expensive red Jean Paul Gaultier shirt (real) which were such a hit in the nightclubs in Europe. 

But so quickly the allure of all that high-end crap wore off for me.  Consumption in Hong Kong is entertaining, as long as you go home at the end of it and read a good novel. :)

5) Expatriates typically enjoy a high standard of living in Hong Kong, often higher than they could afford in their home countries. Do you think the level of obsession that Martin develops with material possessions is unique to HK elites and/or people in similar circumstances?

No.  It's everywhere now.  As high-end designer labels have had to expand their businesses to increase profit, all their products have had to reach bigger and bigger markets.  And everybody knows all the names of the big labels.  Hungry television and magazine lenses have taken us further and further into these worlds, increasing our desire to consume.  Most people try to have what's slightly out of their reach.  And people are so ready to become moving, free, billboards for these companies with some logo branded across their chest or along the arm of their sunglasses.  We've all bought the idea that we can express our individually through the consumption of mass-produced goods.  But really, less is more. 

The expat experience can make the equation more open ended both in the accessibility and desire for the new.  When someone like Martin ramps up this competition, it's only the bizarre that has currency. 

6) Can you tell me a little bit about your publishing journey?

Long and hard.  I've written a few novels prior to this and have had a few near misses with publishers.  I finished CONSUMPTION, oddly, at the beginning of the Global financial crisis and the evolution of e-publishing.  Agents in Manhattan all seemed to be sitting on their hands waiting to see what the hell was going to happen.  I love having books in a room but I also really enjoy my Kindle.  And it's allowed so many people to publish great novels.  Instead of a few publishing companies controlling what you read, now there are hundreds of thousands of niche publishers.  Sure there's some dross and some that need a good edit but you can download a few chapters for free.  Now you, the reader, are the master or mistress of the publisher's slush pile and can decide what to read, not some pimply faced teenager who answers the phones and assess manuscripts in their free time. 

7) Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Write and then write and then write some more.  Find a good editor who IS like a sock on the jaw, who'll praise your work and then rip it apart.  Friends can't do this.  Lose your ego and find something worthwhile in every well-intended criticism.  And when you've written something you're really happy with, publish it through the new e-pub forms. 

8) Is there anything else potential readers need to know about CONSUMPTION?

Just that I would love it if they would indulge me and buy it, read it and then send me a note via my website - 

And if you're in Hong Kong, say hello to Lan Kwai Fong for me and the old lady who sells long-stem roses late into the night, if she's still there. 

Thank you again and best of luck as you continue to promote your work, Greg. I hope that a few extra readers will find their way to you after reading this interview.


  1. Hi, just wanted to let you know I've added your entry to the literary blog directory:
    Hope you find some great blogs through it and also get some new readers. There's a button on my blog if you want to use it.

    Are you teaching in Hong Kong? I teach in the UK and one of my dreams at the moment is to teach in another country for a while.

  2. Thanks for adding me to the blog directory! I've already found a few new blogs that look really good.

    I am teaching in a local primary school in HK. There are also lots of opportunities in international schools and tutoring centers here. It has been a great experience so far and I definitely recommend teaching abroad. English teachers are in demand here, and it is so heartening to be in a place where teachers are being hired and given raises on a daily basis. I keep reading about lay-offs and pay cuts in Western countries and I think even more teachers will be finding their way to Asia. Let me know if you want more information about teaching in HK!

  3. Very interesting review and interview!


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